Trade travails

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The final leg of their journey was undertaken in a pair of six-seater taxis from Edinburgh but, given the distances they had travelled just to get to that point, they probably would have travelled by horse-drawn trap had that been the only means available.

These were vets, customs officials and government employees from Mongolia. They had travelled more than 4,000 miles from Ulaanbaatar to Scotland to find out how we deal with the paperwork required to export fish and other animal-based products to the European Union.

Had these Mongolian vets wanted the same information a couple of years ago, they probably wouldn’t have come to Scotland. But now, such is our proficiency in dealing with the complex and time-consuming export health certificate process, we are almost certainly amongst the world leaders in terms of expertise.

The Mongolians were hosted by Salmon Scotland and DFDS at the hauliers’ transport hub at Larkhall. They saw around the site but it was a real and newly minted export health certificate that really piqued their interest.

And (this is certainly something I never thought I’d write) these people were fascinated, absolutely fascinated by the certificate. They wanted to know what had to be filled out, how this was done, why it had to have numerous official stamps and who did these things.

It is an unfortunate but unavoidable fact of life that everyone at Larkhall who deals with the logistics of getting fish to the continent has become expert in export health certificates, so the Mongolians were learning from the best in the business.

However, it could have been so different. Indeed, had the UK Government moved with a little more speed and determination, then the Mongolian visitors would not have had a hard copy certificate to study.

That is because the whole process could have been (and some would say “should be”) online by now.

But that full digitisation, which we urged the government to prioritise before Brexit, has still not happened. Yes, there have been trials this year and while those have gone well and do signify progress, we are no nearer actually knowing when the digitised system will be operational.

Anyone who looks at the 22-page document which the Mongolian visitors studied so keenly at Larkhall can tell how easy it is to make mistakes.

Each one has to be filled out from scratch with many boxes crossed out and official stamps put in just the right place.

It is a recipe for potential mistakes and this has happened, numerous times. Many of the problems which hauliers face, from delays before dispatch to issues at the border, come from mistakes in the certificates, almost certainly the result of officials trying to do too much, too quickly because demand is so high.

The full digitisation of the system would cut out almost all of those errors because the producers would have a template online and would only have to adjust a few specific sections for each new load.

Threat of a trade war

When the full digitisation does arrive it will make a huge difference and there was a time, not that long ago, when we thought this would be the one change that would start to make everything right. But that was before there was the threat of a trade war with the EU.

That seems to be just what the UK Government is risking by ramping up the rhetoric and threatening unilateral action over the Northern Ireland Protocol, a move which could lead to retaliation by the EU.

This is a complex situation and no-one in the salmon sector is denying that. The UK Government has to juggle many issues, including the stability of Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement, and trade is not the only factor in the equation.

But the impact of any sort of breakdown in trade relations between the UK and the EU would be disastrous, and not just for our exports – although our producers would be in the frontline because they deal in a perishable product.

Our producers have had to cope with 18 months of disruption, much of it considerable, because of Brexit.

They have battled through and, working with the hauliers and the vets, have made the export process as smooth and efficient as possible. It is costing them millions of pounds annually to deal with all the red tape and they have dealt with that too.

And now, just when they have started to look forward to the digitisation of the process and the benefits that will bring, the UK Government is threatening a trade war.

That is unlikely to mean tariffs, at least not to start with. But, if the EU wants to hit back at the UK, all it needs to do is enforce a “go slow” at the Channel ports. It really won’t take much to cause tailbacks and delays snarling up every road leading to the Channel in the UK.

Salmon is the UK’s biggest fresh food export to the EU. It acts as a standard bearer for UK exports.

Yes, the Northern Ireland Protocol is complex and difficult to resolve, but if salmon (and other perishable products) become the reluctant pawns in a trade war because the UK Government wants to be pugnacious over it, the effects will stretch far beyond the salmon sector.

We have been urging the UK Government to rein in the rhetoric, to cool the temperature with the EU and, above all, to start talking.

Our producers have done so much and worked so hard to deal with everything Brexit has thrown at them in the last 18 months. They do not deserve to be caught in the middle of yet another UK-EU dispute, particularly one that has nothing to do with them.

Those Mongolian vets and customs officials were appreciative of how smoothly and efficiently all those at Larkhall worked through all the paperwork and red tape to get salmon deliveries out of the door on time and off to the EU.

They were so impressed that they made it clear it was a model they intend to replicate, proving that, when it comes to EU trade, our logistics partners are an example to the world.

It is just a shame that the UK Government does not appear to share the same goal.